When he flew to Moscow, Paul Fisher wanted to talk to Eugene Kaspersky about pressing industry issues like the consumerisation of IT – but the enigmatic CEO had other fish to fry, such as cracking Japan (with the help of a girl band) and Intel's useful acquisition of a rival.
It's a challenge interviewing Eugene Kaspersky, the chief executive of Kaspersky Lab – and I've done it a few times. You come prepared with a list of questions, but he doesn't answer any of them. At least not in the way you expect or want. Take my opening gambit: let's talk consumerisation. Most in the industry will happily and readily discuss the challenge of managing personal devices in the enterprise.
With Kaspersky, I get a verbal dissertation on the entire future of IT. It's not a matter of the question being lost in translation, either. I think. Here goes then: interview number three.
“Consumerisation? The first time I heard about consumerisation was in 1996 or 1997,” Kaspersky says. “In IT, it's not about consumerisation or about IT security. The environment has changed so quickly with new services, new social networks, etc.
“Consumers change brands so quickly. It's a fight for speed, it's a fight for battery life, and it's a fight for system resources. In the end, it's a technology fight, and it's mostly about the products based on the same technologies, the same formulas – but different marketing. That's consumerisation.”
Is it? Let's leave that one. Maybe come back to the challenge of managing these devices in the enterprise a little later. What about the iPad, I venture. Surely this is an example of a consumer device that is changing the world?
Kaspersky laughs. He points out that Samsung recently cited the concept of the iPad first appearing in a scene from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film made in 1968. You can find the scene on YouTube and, yep, Samsung has a point. This is part of the South Korean tech giant trying to prevent Apple putting an injunction on sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab. “Did you see that? Very funny, ha ha!” Kaspersky says. I guess it is.
Apple versus Android
“At the moment, Apple has a big market share, but I am sure that in the future Android will dominate,” Kaspersky continues. “It happened 30 years ago with the Apple II and IBM PC. The question is, who is going to be a leader: Microsoft or Android? My view is that if Microsoft follows Apple's closed system, it won't be able to achieve a visible market share in mobile, because the winner will be the vendor that builds a community.”
What he really means, I think, is an open developer community. After all, Apple has a pretty successful community of users.
“One of the reasons we have been successful is our partner community, which is hugely valuable to us,” Kaspersky says. “We are very loyal to our partners and they remain loyal to the company, and this arc allows us to develop new products.”
It's certainly true that Kaspersky Lab has been remarkably successful across the globe, and in markets that it may not have been expected to do well in, such as the US. Kaspersky, all thoughts about the challenges of consumerisation now firmly off the agenda, fires off some stats for my delight. He grins as he does so. He often does in any conversation. The famous Kaspersky grin, when you don't know whether he is serious or not. He frequently isn't – it's your job to try and discover when he is. I wonder, does he ever lose his temper? So, anyway, the stats and the market share stuff.
“Symantec has around two billion endpoints; McAfee one billion; Trend Micro around half a billion – us, the same,” he says. “In terms of territories, we are everywhere, we have a very visible market share and presence everywhere around the globe, except Japan and South Korea. Japan is an extremely conservative (ie, hard to crack) market. The two most conservative markets are the UK and Japan. Why? I don't know –maybe it's because they are both island countries. Brits are known to be very conservative, and the Japanese – double Brits, triple Brits!” He crowns this odd description with a burst of laughter.
Kaspersky goes on to explain that this situation will change, thanks to marketing – particularly in Japan. One wheeze is to sponsor a Japanese pop group seemingly composed of 20 young women. Kaspersky suddenly whips out one of the various marketing trinkets that are scattered throughout his office to make his point. It's a paper fan emblazoned with the company logo and a picture of one of the said Japanese lovelies. This, then, is the way to sell anti-malware in Japan. For a taste, try visiting kasperksy.co.jp – it's certainly different. Sophos, eat your heart out.
However, you can't deny the company's achievements in the aftermarket, and now Kaspersky is determined to get a slice of the pre-load market. If he is half as successful as Symantec has been, then McAfee should be worried. On the pinboard behind his desk is a list of target PC manufacturers. I'm not allowed to see it up close, but one does not need much imagination to realise who might be on the list.
“We are very successful in consumer retail; consumers are much less loyal to a product and are more likely to change. We are not such a big name in PC pre-load. We are not able to get in touch with big names… yet.” He points to a green line on the list. “We are there,” he says, with a look that suggests he expects to be further up the list the next time we meet. He probably will be.
So I mention McAfee and its new silicon daddy, Intel. Doesn't this make his life a little easier, a competitor pretty much taken out of the AV market by a parent that pretty much understands hardware only?
“Yes, I was very happy,” he says, laughing again. “McAfee will change its focus and concentrate on hardware. I said this last year; now it's reality. Its excellent endpoint technologies will suffer. They will be closer to the hardware. Intel is a hardware company – I don't know any successful software project from Intel… except one, Intel's C++ compiler. Because it is optimised for Intel! I don't want to say that their ambition to build new security standards is necessarily a bad business decision. But for us in the endpoint security business, it's very good news because one is out.”
They might be giants
What about that other big beast, Symantec? No Intel inside there but a giant that still pretty much dominates the security market, and increasingly one with enterprise services attached.
“Yes, but the difference is that Symantec is taking on new areas too quickly,” Kaspersky argues. “They are just buying companies. We are going very slowly, we want to guarantee that what we are doing we are doing in a very, very good way. Symantec is a public company, it's a big company and its targets are financial. I want my company to retain different targets, but some human targets… to save the world.”
This saving the world bit: no smile accompanies that. Ironically, it's an ambition he shares with the now-departed McAfee chief executive Dave DeWalt – who liked to bang on like this in front of customers and press, but you knew it was just marketing flim-flam. Is it the same with Kaspersky? Is it just something to say? Maybe he does believe he is, like the company slogan says, “here to save the world”. I can't tell. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe we should just admire his business sense and single-minded vision; one he is determined to keep true to.
“To keep the spirit of the company we have to be careful about whom we employ, which is why we are extremely conservative about acquisitions,” he says. “I don't want to damage the company with strangers. There has been only one acquisition in the history of the company: the Spamtest Project, six or seven years ago. We have come close to other acquisitions, but we pulled back. It's dangerous for the company.”
That sounds weird, or even a little Russian to me, but it is tempered by what he says next. Kaspersky is an advocate of independence and employees who can think and act for themselves. “People need to be able to take their own decisions. Kaspersky Lab is like an army of semi-independent people, but to run this army we need to have a special spirit. I need to trust people in the company, and to trust them I need to be sure of them. If they are random people from acquired companies, I cannot be sure of them. I want to keep that freedom to keep building my company.”
This is the first time Kaspersky has talked of the company as “his”.
“The most successful companies are like this,” he continues. “It's about spirit, it's about management. So to get back to our competition, we are not moving resources, we are allocating more resources slowly to enterprise products.”
How important is Kaspersky Lab to Russia, then? After all, it's one of the few Russian businesses not connected to oil or gas that is well known outside the country's borders – you can even see its logo travelling at 200mph on the F1 circuits around the globe (see below).
“It is better for you to ask Russia!” Kaspersky answers. “But we are an example to other Russian IT companies on how to build an international company. Most Russian IT companies are focused on the domestic market. Many of their managers are 50, 60 years old and were born in the Soviet Union.”
At 46, though, Kaspersky himself is pretty close to that age bracket. He too could have built an inward-facing, middling anti-virus business. But, of course, he didn't. I'm at the end of my third interview in five years with him, and I'm still no closer to understanding the man or his success – except that he is contradictory, dominant and charismatic.
Take the contradictions. One minute he talks about getting into pre-load, which is largely for the consumer market, and in the next breath he tells me that PCs in the home are finished. They are “just for old people,” he states. It's all about mobile now – except in the enterprise! Because consumerisation is just a fight for consumers' wallets.
Was it lost in translation? Is it just Russian bluff? Maybe he's right. What is consumerisation except just another facet of keeping systems secure? Why get hung up on it?
Maybe Kaspersky is saving the world. Stick to what you know, be a leader in your field and the world will follow. Here's to the next time then.
Kaspersky on sponsoring the Ferrari F1 team
When Kaspersky Lab's sponsorship of the Ferrari F1 team is mentioned, Eugene Kaspersky becomes animated – thrilled even. He's just returned from the Italian grand prix at Monza.
He pulls out a copy of an Italian newspaper, which features a photograph of the Ferrari drivers standing in front of the Kaspersky logo in the team's garage. “We didn't pay for that!” he says.
He's not fanatical about motorsport, but, as he puts it: “As a man, I like it.”
He continues: “It was a commercial decision. We were looking for a global sponsorship, but football was too simple a game. We wanted a technical sport to match Kaspersky Lab's image. It's also a dedicated technical team there, a garage full of technicians and computers. A Formula One car is a big computer with wheels.”
Kaspersky uses the sponsorship to entertain customers and partners. “They are very happy when we ask them to come to races. We take them to the garage, sometimes they meet the drivers.”
So has it been commercially effective? “We are still waiting for financial figures, but my impression is that it has been. When we met Ferrari, we just said: ‘We are serious about this.' Ferrari doesn't let just anyone be a sponsor – it is very selective.”
Moscow Travel Trauma
My first trip to Moscow five years ago revealed a city choked by traffic, still somewhat short of customer service and in the throes of rapid redevelopment.
Well, the traffic is actually worse now. There are still cranes everywhere and it still cannot be called pretty. Yet it has a dynamism. Citizens seem happier and service has improved. The city feels more European, less strange, less forbidding.
Yet the traffic and the overcrowding are such that the Moscow authorities are thinking of expanding the city to stretch beyond its current borders. The project will take 20 years and will explode the city's size from 264,000 to 620,000 acres, even relocating government offices. To the visitor stuck in the three-hour traffic jam, it seems a good solution, but locals opposed to the scheme say areas of natural beauty, as well as small towns, will be lost forever.
What Moscow needs to improve more than anything is the chaotic state of its main airport, Domodedovo. While one understands the need for extra security following the suicide attacks here in January, the chaos that greets you in arrivals – thanks to lengthened immigration checks – creates a huge risk in itself, not to mention stress and impatience. Large groups of people in unmanaged heaps trying to get through immigration is a tempting soft target to the enemies of the Russian government.
Leaving the country is even more galling. My advice: check out of your hotel at least five hours before your plane departs. Then you might just get on your flight with some semblance of calm.